It’s A Jungle In There: How Competition and Cooperation Shape the Mind

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Cognitive psychologist and Penn State professor David A. Rosenbaum says we’ve got an “inner battlefield” happening in our minds — meaning loads of thoughts and ideas are constantly duking it out for survival, and these battles do as much to shape our personalities as external forces. If that sounds a little Darwinian, that’s the idea.

In his book “It’s a Jungle in There: How Competition and Cooperation in the Brain Shape the Mind,” Rosenbaum argues that Darwin’s theory of biology is just as applicable in cognitive psychology. We talk to him about it here.

Brain World: How did you come to link Darwin with cognitive psychology?

David A. Rosenbaum: While teaching, I uttered the phrase “It’s a jungle in there” to get across what I was trying to explain. The idea was brewing for a long time before that based on my exposure to Darwin on one hand, and on my exposure to cognitive psychology on the other.

In cognitive psychology, there is endless reference to memories getting stronger or weaker based on experience. As for how I originally saw the connection, that’s trickier. Darwin suggested we should be able to trace back to the origin of all species, so I should, in principle, be able to trace back to the origin of my idea. Millions of neural events in my brain, untraceable now, surely led to my seeing the connection.

I should stress that others have seen the connection as well, as I detail in the book. But no one else, as far as I know, has assembled all the evidence in one place.

BW: You talk about the “mental elves” that populate our minds, but, before people get freaked out, what do you mean?

DR: Don’t get freaked out — this is just a metaphor. And what’s the “meta” for? Instead of speaking about neural ensembles carrying out different functions that happen to map onto experience — the scientifically respectable way of talking about this — it helps to imagine little “guys” and “gals” in there doing things that may happen to help them survive or not. If you’re a neural ensemble that’s activated by the sight of horizontal lines in the environment, you’ll have a good chance of surviving because that sight comes along often. But if you’re a neural ensemble that’s activated by the thought of a long-lost acquaintance whom you haven’t encountered in decades, your chances of survival aren’t that great; the acquaintance will be forgotten.

BW: Why is brain plasticity so key in illustrating the point of your book?

DR: Brain plasticity illustrates in vivid form why it’s a jungle in there. If some part of the brain stops being activated by inputs, it may get infiltrated by similar inputs. For example, if your arm happens to get cut off — please don’t get freaked out; I’m actually not a ghoul, I’m just trying to make this memorable for you — that part of the brain is ripe for the picking by other nearby inputs. They make connections to that brain region, and you get weird phenomena like feeling that your now-absent arm is being touched if your face is being touched. Many phenomena reflect this same tendency for intense competition (and cooperation) in the brain.

BW: You write that people can truly have only one thought at a time. Why would it adversely affect survival to have many simultaneous thoughts?

DR: There is intense competition for access to the motor system, the system that moves muscles to help you do what you need to do. If you need to run away from a boulder rolling down a hill, you’d better act quickly or you’ll be a dead duck.

BW: Some readers might disagree with your Darwin theory, and you welcome that. Why might this theory provoke strong reactions?

DR: It’s hard to accept the idea that random processes rule. Darwin’s theory is, essentially, a theory of random processes yielding a panoply of species. Random processes can give rise to amazing structure even though no executive is directing traffic. The notion that there is no “God in your head,” no CEO in your cortex telling you what to do, is disconcerting. People find it hard to accept that each of them is an entire population of little self-serving neural ensembles. I am such a population too, and I don’t especially like the idea. I should add, finally, that this perspective needn’t deny the importance of goodness and even spirituality.


These are positive mental states we should cultivate. It may be a jungle in there, just as it may be a jungle out there, but this doesn’t mean we have to descend to our baser instincts. In a jungle, cooperation is as important as competition. The last thing I want this theory to do is encourage people to be meaner than, sadly, they already are.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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